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Watershed


Geographical Information:

  • The Wekepeke Watershed lies primarily within the town of Sterling (including all of the RRI study area), but is also within the towns of Leominster and Lancaster.
  • The watershed drains 11.5 square miles over its 5.1 mile length and empties into the Nashua River in Lancaster.
  • The watershed is hilly, well forested and contains numerous wetlands. The area has seen an increase in maturing forests with the decline of farming, slightly offset by some more recent clearing related to an increase in suburban house lots.
  • Five reservoirs feed the upper portion of the watershed through a network of small streams and connected wetlands. These are the Heywood Reservoir, Fitch Basin, Upper and Lower Lynde Basins and Spring Basin.

The Wekepeke Watershed (green outline) and study area (blue outline) are shown here with town boundaries.  The inset map shows the location of the watershed (red) within the Nashua River drainage (light blue) and the State of Massachusetts.

 

Historical Information:

Thomas J. Christopher, of Christopher Environmental Associates and the Rushing Rivers Institute provided some historical information about the upper portion of the watershed. Readers are encouraged to submit additional information to WWRI and we can expand on the watershed’s documented history.

  • In 1830, the Wekepeke Brook provided an important source of waterpower to residents of the area and formed three separate mill ponds south of Lower North Row Road and west of the Worcester Road.
  • To the west at this time, the land was used primarily for agricultural purposes. Tax records from the mid and late 1800’s show small homes, sheds, cattle, swine, chickens, etc. as taxable items.
  • The mills along the Wekepeke were relatively small, cottage-type industries usually attached to lands also suitable for a broad range of agricultural activities. Forests were cut down to provide timber for the mills and the land was then more suitable for the production of food crops and dairy products as urban areas began to develop and grow.
  • In 1880, approximately 200 acres were purchased in Sterling for use as a public water supply for the Town of Clinton.
  • By 1890, more intensive agricultural use was developing. The dairy and orchard production along Lower North Row Road grew substantially.  On Upper North Row Road, families were also herding dairy cattle for the production of milk, cheese, and butter; however these parcels were eventually purchased by the Town of Clinton to become part of the water supply system.
  • The construction of Wachusett Reservoir between 1897 and 1908, made the use of water from the Wekepeke less critical for the Town of Clinton except in times of drought, lowering the ecological pressure on the brook.
  • In 1910, the Heywood orchard property planted over 1,000 trees, mostly Baldwins and McIntosh. By 1912, pesticide applications intensified as San Jose scale (SJs) and other insect populations began to thrive in the orchard monocultures, moving from parcel to adjacent parcels. In 1912, Sholan Farms became the second largest orchard in Massachusetts.
  • The last dam to be developed in the upper watershed, located in the Heywood Basin, was constructed around 1926 and is the largest reservoir in the system.
  • In 1950, a gravel pit opened on the south side of Upper North Row Road almost adjacent to the Wekepeke, and continued to extract material until the early 1970’s.
  • In the 1960’s, the Wekepeke property was officially decommissioned as a public water supply.
  • Residential home construction began to expand into the area in the 1980’s.
  • In 2004, the Town of Clinton negotiated a conservation restriction on their property within Sterling to preserve the area and limit its use.
  • In 2007, the property was tested by Nestle Waters North America (NWNA) as a potential source of bottle quality spring water. The Town of Clinton then solicited proposals for development of the resource area before ultimately voting to reject the Nestle proposal in 2008.
  • Around this time, NWNA hired the Rushing Rivers Institute (RRI) to analyze their water withdrawal plan and survey the river habitat within the upper portion of the watershed. After having invested in the project siting study, the company was interested in using RRI’s approach to stream studies to see if they could determine both their potential impact on the stream had the project moved forward and information on remediation possibilities that may have alleviated their water withdrawals.
  • In late 2011, Rushing Rivers finished its study and Nestle Waters made it available to the Wekepeke communities as a document and through presentations to do with as they saw fit.
  • With the project complete, RRI with the support of NWNA helped to launch the Wekepeke Watershed Restoration Initiative to develop community interest in helping to address some of the watershed issues uncovered during the RRI study.
  • Today substantial residential development exists on both sides of Lower North Row Road as construction of large three and four bedroom homes has become common. There are still several open rolling fields that are part of the old early parcels, but they are under continual transient ownership, and therefore potential development.
  • Historical impacts to the Wekepeke Brook over time would probably begin with sedimentation related to the deforesting of the area along with the addition of potentially toxic compounds related to the early mills (ie. glues and other adhesive materials used to fasten chairs). Adverse effects from agriculture are well-known and range from the runoff of animal manures, siltation from exposed soil and toxic chemicals used for controlling insects in intensive agriculture. Orchard pesticides historically included chlorinated hydrocarbons, carbamates, organophosphates, and strong fungicides.
  • More recently, expanded residential development has led to an increase in pesticides from lawn fertilizer (nitrogen and phosphorous loading), increased runoff of hydrocarbons, thermal loading and flash runoff from paved areas and the potential for pollution from failed septic systems. While only light development of Upper North Row Road exists so far, this area will likely continue to see some development pressures.

 

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